Regaining the Moral High Ground

President's Views


Each month I use this column as an accountability tool, a space for me as president to keep you, the members who elected me and whose dues fund AFSA, informed about the progress we are making implementing the Governing Board’s agreed work plan.

But the topic of this edition of the FSJ—corruption, and Secretary John F. Kerry’s call for good governance and fighting corruption to be a “first-order national security priority”—is so compelling and timely that I am making an exception to instead reflect on good governance itself. My hope is that members of the Foreign Service will find inspiration in these pages and rally behind the call to action.

Under Secretary Sarah Sewell describes how corruption not only gives rise to new threats, including terrorism, but also undermines governments’ ability to respond to those threats.

Assistant Secretary William Brownfield shares how anti-corruption has gained prominence as a U.S. foreign policy priority. FSO George Kent describes how Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland has made countering corruption a core issue in the policy agenda for Europe.

Sec. Kerry made the case powerfully in his Davos speech this year: “The fact is that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more demoralizing, more destructive, more disempowering to any citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them.” He reminds us that “it is everybody’s responsibility to condemn and expose corruption.”

Walking the talk, the Secretary forthrightly acknowledges current political realities in our own country: “We live with a pay-to-play campaign finance system that should not be wished on any other country in the world.”

As an FSO who began her career proudly reporting on and fighting for human rights and democracy in Central America, only to face in recent years skeptical audiences overseas who wanted to talk instead about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and waterboarding, I am overjoyed to see this policy emphasis on good governance and fighting corruption.

Open talk of the sale of public office inevitably undermines the credibility of America’s voice as a champion for good governance.

This is, in my view, an American diplomat’s dream: a foreign policy fully aligned with our country’s core interests and values. As I urge you to rally behind this vision, I want to follow the Secretary’s example and forthrightly acknowledge that, left unchecked, the “pay-to-play campaign finance system” the Secretary criticized in Davos will inevitably bleed into our efforts to fight corruption abroad.

When we in the Foreign Service seek to convince audiences abroad to reject corruption, cronyism and the spoils system in favor of building strong, accountable democratic institutions, our voice will be stronger and more credible if we are not open to charges of engaging in these practices ourselves.

Open talk of the sale of public office—as we see in the rash of stories that follow American presidential elections, with speculation about how much this political appointee gave for that plum ambassadorship—inevitably undermines the credibility of America’s voice as a champion for good governance.

The fact that the United States stands virtually alone among serious countries in filling ambassadorial positions this way increases the attention to this practice and heightens the tension between what we say and what we do.

As advocates for the rule of law abroad, we should keep in mind that our own law is clear on the subject. Section 304 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 reads: “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.”

As we move ever more resolutely to make good governance and anti-corruption a first-order foreign policy priority, we should redouble our efforts to model good governance in our own practices.

America’s voice will be strongest if we who represent America abroad—the U.S. Foreign Service—are seen as living up to the principles and standards we urge other governments to adopt.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.